Among the biggest negative effects of the auteur theory is the idea that filmmakers are knowable; that every director not only has a distinctive influence on every film they touch, but that their influence can be traced and defined and connected to all of their other films. Truthfully, filmmakers are complicated, and it is in fact the parts that refuse to connect, that refuse to be defined, that make any director’s filmography fascinating and worth studying.
Generally, this effect doesn’t hurt anything other than the auteurist’s own thinking. But occasionally, a film will be negatively received not for its content, but because of who the filmmaker is perceived as being. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a prime example of this. Conceived by Stanley Kubrick as far back as the 1970s, A.I. stayed in developmental hell for decades before he brought Steven Spielberg on. Kubrick thought that the film would be a better fit for Spielberg’s style, while Spielberg disagreed. When Kubrick passed away in 1999, however, Spielberg decided to honor his friend by directing the film.
When the film was finally released in 2001, it was not received particularly well. Some considered it a masterpiece, including Jonathan Rosenbaum (who later named it among his 100 favorite films), Armond White (who later named it his absolute favorite film) and A.O. Scott. Others, like Roger Ebert, reviewed it positively, though with reservations. But, for the most part, reviewers were heavily critical of the film, particularly its tone and ending, which was perceived as overly sappy.
Watching the film 15 years later, it’s hard to see how it was so misjudged. More than anything, what seemed to hurt the film most were the words “Directed by Steven Spielberg.” The man began his career making horror films like Duel and Jaws, and in the ‘80s, he produced such dark pieces of cinema as Poltergeist and Gremlins. In the ‘90s, he directed graphic and shocking historical epics like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan alongside blockbusters like Hook and the Jurassic Park films. Yet, with A.I., it was as if he was being judged as blockbuster Spielberg, making a film about a robot child going on a Pinocchio inspired adventure.
Despite this, A.I. is as dark as anything Spielberg had made before. The film is set after much of the human population has died off due to climate change, leading to the creation of an advanced form of robot, Mecha, intended to replicate the need for human interaction while reducing consumption. Allen Hobby (played by William Hurt) manages to create a Mecha with the ability to love, David (played by Haley Joel Osment), who is given to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Connor).
The film’s first half hour is fascinating, showing David attempting to apply logic to human behavior he doesn’t have the ability to understand. “Is this a game?” he repeatedly asks, while a scene at the dinner table in which he begins spontaneously laughing is somewhere between lovable and terrifying, the exact spot you’d expect a Kubrick/Spielberg collaboration to exist in.
The film goes from fascinating to masterful when the Swintons’ son Martin (Jake Thomas) comes back home after a cure for a rare disease he has is discovered, bringing him out of suspended animation. Jealousy erupts between David and Martin. Martin tells David to cut Monica’s hair while she sleeps, causing Henry and Monica to become terrified of him, and he gets Monica to read to them from The Adventures of Pinocchio, reminding David that he isn’t real.
After David accidentally comes close to killing Martin, Monica tries to bring David back to the corporation to have him destroyed, but can’t bring herself to do it. This leads to a devastating scene in which she abandons David in the woods, as he begs her not to, apologizing for not being real. This scene alone should have earned Osment an Oscar. We know that David is not human, but his human qualities make sure we sympathize with him. For the same reason Monica can’t bring herself to destroy him, we find ourselves crying for David.
At the same time, the audience’s questioning of whether David’s love is real also gets to the core of one of the film’s most important questions: are our emotions any different from his? Is the importance we put on flesh and blood meaningless when our humanity is more affirmed by empathy and love? All of David’s actions may be due to coding, but that doesn’t mean that his emotions are any less real. As a result, A.I. is as skeptical about technology as 2001, and yet it doesn’t paint David as a villain the way Kubrick painted HAL 9000. Both are products of their design; in A.I., the perspective is merely flipped.
After David is abandoned, the film goes into Pinocchio mode, with David searching for the Blue Fairy, hoping she will grant him his wish to be a real boy, which will make Monica love him. Because he’s designed to love, it is his only reason for existing, which forces him to go to the end of the Earth if there’s hope he’ll be reunited with the woman he’s programmed to love. In the end, he finds the Blue Fairy, but it’s only a statue in the flooded Coney Island. So David waits for thousands of years, driven by the hope that he will finally get his wish.
The supposedly happy ending takes place after the entire human race has ceased to exist. Highly advanced Mecha discover David, realizing he’s the last connection to human civilization left. David asks if Monica can be brought back and is told that she can, though only for one day. If the ending seems sentimental, that’s because of how it’s told—through fairy tale-like narration and a fairly happy tone, showing David and the recreated Monica joyfully enjoying their last day together. But this merely masks how horrific what has happened is. Spielberg isn’t a filmmaker who adds unreliable narration into the mix often, but here, it’s used to beautiful and heartbreaking effect.
A.I. is indeed a masterpiece, and very likely Spielberg’s greatest film. In fact, many critics who were initially wary of it later changed their minds; Ebert, critical of the ending in his 2001 review, added the film to his Great Movies list in 2011, and Mark Kermode came to love it as well. For me, A.I. is a brilliant film for many reasons, one of which is pure entertainment value. Things like the flesh fair—in which anti-Mecha humans destroy outdated robots—and characters like Gigolo Joe, a prostitute Mecha played by Jude Law (“She will make you a real boy, for I will make her a real woman”), are unique and fun to watch. And yet, even the most purely enjoyable moments have bits of poignancy in them. The flesh fair scene culminates in a moment where David begins begging for his life, prompting the hateful crowd to suddenly empathize with him, while Gigolo Joe’s best moment is a speech in which he explains that the problem is with humans, not Mecha: “They made us too smart, too quick and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us.”
But perhaps the biggest reason A.I. should be seen is because of how it simultaneously confirms the auteur theory and creates a strong case for questioning it. Spielberg later said, “…what’s really funny about that is, all the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s.” The film is essentially the product of two different filmmakers copying each other’s styles instead of combining them, resulting in a wholly original and messy work of art. We need more films like this.